Aspen and Snowmass have their differences. So do their COVID-cautious events.
Differences in town structure, culture impact event planning
For the Aspen Times Weekly
The City of Aspen could have rolled out all the familiar COVID-speak buzzwords to announce the cancellation of New Year’s Eve fireworks back in December.
“Unprecedented times,” “uncertain times,” “the new normal,” “an abundance of caution” — all were drafted in jest in a Dec. 20 email from assistant city manager Diane Foster to special events coordinator Sandra Doebler and communications director Denise White that joked about using “every single cliché, platitude or otherwise overused pandemic phase.”
“Yes, these are trying times in uncharted waters – yet our future is full of hope and fewer Zoom meetings,” Foster wrote. “We look forward to a time when toilet paper shortages are behind us and we appreciate our essential workers more than we ever have before.”
The city instead went the straightforward route: Only “an abundance of caution” made the cut for the Dec. 21 public service announcement from the city, which cited potential group gatherings as the reasoning behind the cancellation.
But the reality is that the impact of COVID-19 on local event planning this winter goes far beyond the scope of an “abundance of caution,” according to dozens of emails among local agencies obtained by the Aspen Times through several Colorado Open Records Requests.
Everything from police department staffing to local culture to town geography weighs on decisions about what could and couldn’t happen — and where — amid pandemic restrictions. And when it comes to pandemic event planning, those quirky distinctions between neighbors meant the difference between Aspen’s mostly-virtual lineup (New Year’s Eve fireworks included) and Snowmass Village’s comparatively full slate of in-person experiences.
BOOM OR BUST
By nature of Aspen’s layout, the New Year’s Eve fireworks show has an inherent tendency to draw crowds: in Wagner Park, Gondola Plaza, pedestrian malls, parks and trails, up on the mountain.
The city provides security personnel to work as “eyes and ears” supporting the Aspen Police Department, according to an Oct. 21 email Doebler sent to Pitkin County policy and project manager Kara Silbernagel and COVID-19 program administrator Laryssa Dandenau. Last year, Aspen Skiing Co. ski patrollers also worked security on the mountain to keep uphillers away from the production site.
That kind of gathering would be a no-go under COVID-19 restrictions this year. The city nixed the bonfire celebration, decided not to hire security and would not rent “fencing, lighting or anything that would provide an appearance of an event or a gathering taking place,” Doebler wrote in an email to city of Aspen Transportation Programs Manager Lynn Rumbaugh on Oct. 28. The city still planned to utilize ski patrol for on-mountain security, according to a series of mid-December emails between Doebler and Skico Director of Event Development Deric Gunshor.
But the fireworks themselves remained a possibility until mid-December; Doebler confirmed plans for three shows in a Dec. 15 email to Parking Director Mitch Osur.
The problem, ultimately, was keeping an eye on those gatherings.
The city’s police department, which typically has 10 or 11 officers on hand for New Year’s Eve, was down to just six available officers that would be available to provide crowd control, according to an email from Chief of Police Richard Pryor to City Manager Sara Ott and Special Events Director Nancy Lesley sent the morning of Dec. 17.
Three officers were using time off on the date; two more were trainees. The police department’s New Year’s Eve staffing was the lowest it had ever been. The city would need “significant private security presence” to mitigate gatherings, Pryor wrote.
He also thought that even with limited restaurant operations and other activities, “it is likely there will be many people wandering around town. … I think they will be hoping for something to do.” The Aspen fireworks would be the “only ‘show in town,’” and with few offerings elsewhere, Pryor wrote that hosting a fireworks show could even draw additional people into Aspen.
All things considered, “it would be more sensible not to proceed with a fireworks show,” Pryor wrote.
Within 24 hours of Pryor’s email, city staff had decided to pull the plug. Staff shelved an alternate proposal to do several spontaneous, unannounced shows out of a concern that it would startle people and pets.
“In essence, public health indicated that we were creating watch parties that we would be responsible for,” Ott explained in a Dec. 18 email to Lesley, Snowmass Village Town Manager Clint Kinney and Snowmass Tourism Director Rose Abello.
“The only realistic way to meet the public health expectations is to hire a ton of private security and that’s not feasible for us this late with our other security priorities for that night and our typical call volume for law enforcement,” Ott wrote.
A few days before New Year’s Eve, the city set the wheels in motion to instead air a virtual fireworks show on Aspen 82, according to a Dec. 28 email from city of Aspen Sales and Marketing Coordinator Toni Case to Aspen 82 owner Spencer McKnight.
Those public health expectations aren’t so much a set-in-stone rubric as an evolving evaluation of current guidelines, according to Pitkin County Public Health staff.
When reviewing event safety plans submitted to the county, staff are looking less for specific boxes checked and more for an overall mitigation strategy (like communication with attendees, disinfection strategies and tools to ensure social distancing) and point of contact from an event coordinator to help manage the event.
The goal is education, Silbernagel said in an interview; a risk matrix attached to every event safety plan helps coordinators think about risk mitigation, and selecting the current county restriction level reminds coordinators of current capacity limits. (When dial levels change, staff can contact coordinators to inform them of the impacts on plans.)
The county aligns with state guidance on what events are and aren’t permitted (concerts currently aren’t; staggered-start sports competitions are), Silbernagel said.
AN APPLES TO ORANGES COMPARISON
Aspen’s fireworks bust caught the attention of some who noticed Snowmass Village planned to carry on with their Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve fireworks displays, according to several emails among staff from the town of Snowmass Village, City of Aspen and Pitkin County.
But there’s a key difference between Aspen and Snowmass better represented on a map than anywhere else. Nearly 95% of Snowmass Village lodging is slopeside, allowing a clear view of the fireworks from most condos, and the layout of Fanny Hill is unlikely to create gatherings that would require a large security presence, according to Abello. Photos from previous years indicate a naturally-distanced experience, she said.
Photos of the 2020 Christmas Eve display this year that were emailed to Snowmass Special Events Manager Julie Hardman on Dec. 30 support the premise: groups are spread out, and none number more than 10.
Two night shift officers from Snowmass Village Police Department were on hand to keep an eye on crowds, according to a Dec. 29 email from Snowmass Patrol Sergeant Dave Heivly to the Pitkin County Consumer Protection team. Snowmass Village Police Chief Brian Olson said that two officers is the minimum staffing on New Year’s Eve, but “with the reduction of all kinds of events and things going on,” that was sufficient. (In the past, the department has staffed additional officers in anticipation of post-party impacts.)
The distinctions that allowed Snowmass Village to proceed with New Year’s Eve fireworks while Aspen canceled its show highlight a difference between the municipalities that, in turn, spurred different approaches to event planning amid this winter’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’re such complimentary communities, and such different communities. … I don’t like the comparison, because I don’t know that it’s apples to apples at all,” Abello said. “We have different motivations, we have different requirements, we have different tolerances, let’s call it, (and) different events, and so they’re just different.”
With the uncertainty that surrounded the future of the ski season last fall, Abello and Hardman said that Snowmass Tourism staff looked toward events and activities that could take place regardless of the color on the state’s COVID-19 dial or the status of mountain operations.
Most items on the Snowmass Tourism calendar were designed as self-contained activities that Abello and Hardman refer to as “activations” — a kind of interactive experience that doesn’t hinge on gatherings and has long been on the Snowmass Village docket of “vitality” events.
Free guided treks from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies were an addition to two paid, on-mountain ACES experiences; Snowmass Luminescence expanded on the Snowmass Light Festival that took place in 2019; ice sculpture demonstrations returned, with greater frequency, after earlier iterations during the 2017-18 and 2019-20 seasons.
The Snowmass Tourism team doesn’t typically organize large events in the winter anyways, instead supporting Skico programming like concerts and sports competitions, Hardman said.
“Aspen’s just a different entity, where, you know, we (in Snowmass) really drive tourism through our events and groups,” Hardman said. “Aspen’s a little different because they ride a lot on their reputation — they don’t have to do as many vitality events or smaller events to keep their occupancy up, so it’s a little more challenging in Snowmass, in some ways, but … there’s a lot of benefits.”
Aspen did produce some “vitality” activations this year too — pulling Santa Claus in a sleigh through the downtown core during “12 Days of Aspen” and organizing snow sculpture demonstrations during Wintersköl, Aspen Chamber Resort Association Vice President of event marketing Jennifer Albright wrote in an email to the Aspen Times. Virtual experiences like a season-long “Skiers on Parade” scavenger hunt and online trivia for Wintersköl supplemented the lineup.
The large events that typically define the Aspen winter calendar, like the New Year’s Eve bonfire, a K-9 fashion show for Wintersköl and the BudLight HiFi concerts (held in both Aspen and Snowmass) were all shelved for the season.
“As COVID dial metrics continued in a negative trend in November, December and January, it became clear that [public health orders] and COVID dial restrictions would not allow for many of the traditional, large group gatherings that are a normal part of the winter event schedule nor the events we had planned,” Doebler wrote in an email to the Aspen Times. “Virtual and passive activations that did not promote large crowd gatherings became the standard.”
GREAT MINDS, THINKING ALIKE
Despite the differences in the two municipalities, adapting the calendar to COVID-19 parameters has in some ways more closely aligned Aspen and Snowmass this season, Skico Director of Event Development Deric Gunshor said.
Historically, “there tends to be a little bit of differentiation between the people that populate each mountain,” Gunshor said, with programming catered to the guest: more evening events in Aspen, more daytime and aprés-oriented events in Snowmass. “I think it’s also the nature of Aspen and Snowmass kind of lend to different types of events as well.”
His events team partners with Snowmass Tourism on “pretty much everything we do in Snowmass,” Gunshor said. Events staff also works closely with the city of Aspen and ACRA on programming there, but fewer events are co-branded in the same way they are in Snowmass. (In addition to collaborations with Skico, the city of Aspen, ACRA and the town of Snowmass Village are in constant communication with one another on event plannning amid COVID-19 restrictions; no entity is an island.)
“I don’t really feel like in COVID times, there’s as much differentiation in the events because we’re so limited in what can and can’t be done,” Gunshor said in an interview. “I do think they’re a little bit more similar now than they were before.”
Gunshor cited the “Music on the Mountains“ series as an example: the pop-up performances near chairlift stations take on a similar form regardless of which mountain they’re on. It may not be the large-scale concerts of years past, but the series (much like a similar “Music on the Mall” setup in the Snowmass Mall) has kept the spirit of live music alive.
“We’ve really just adapted or modified how we do most of our things,” Gunshor said.
That upshot will ring a similar bell for most of the events agencies in the upper valley: flexibility is key.
Albright, from ACRA, wrote in an email to the Aspen Times that the organization has learned “to be nimble in the ever-changing landscape of COVID.” Doebler, from the City of Aspen, noted that when in-person events simply weren’t feasible under Orange- and Red-level restrictions, they pivoted to virtual offerings.
And, as Snowmass Tourism’s Abello says in nearly every meeting, interview and discussion of COVID-19 and event planning, “Shift happens.” As spring and summer approach, shift will continue to happen, too.